Devil's claw has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and its use in Europe has grown rapidly with the escalating number of arthritis sufferers, rising due to an ageing population as well as increase in one of the major risk factors, obesity.
But collection of the herb from the wild cannot sustain demand in the long-term. The global market currently uses between 600 and 700 metric tons of raw material each year and the plant needs to grow for four years or more before ready for harvesting.
Martin Bauer and South African partner Grassroots Natural Products, which coordinates the cultivation projects in South Africa and Namibia, have reduced the vegetation period of the sensitive desert plant to just 18 months and also produced a plant with a higher level of harpagoside, the active constituent.
"We have proved that it is possible to cultivate Devil's Claw," said Dr Hans-Jürgen Hannig, head of Martin Bauer's cultivation department.
The first plantations during 2002 produced 250,000 seedlings for planting the crop on a large scale in 2003. Harvesting will take place this June, with the company expecting to collect around 40 metric tons of Harpagophytum procumbens. It will supply sister company Finzelberg with the extract for use in supplements and OTC products.
The cultivated drug is of a superior quality to the wild plant in terms of purity, identity and active constituent content, according to HPLC laboratory analysis. Martin Bauer says years of research have led to cuttings with as much as 2.3 per cent harpagoside - the pharmacopoeia stipulates a minimum of 1.2 per cent active constituent.
"Controlled cultivation not only conserves natural resources and the foundation of the biosphere, but optimum selection also produces the quality required by the customer," notes Martin Bauer managing director Helmut Hack.
There has been a dramatic increase in worldwide requirements for Harpagophytum procumbens, ever since an initial study in Germany in 1976 demonstrated the herbal's anti-inflammatory properties. Sales of the extract, obtained from the root, in Germany alone were worth €8 million in 1999, rising 113 per cent the next year and again 59 per cent to €27 million by 2001, according to Phytopharm Consulting. In 2002 it was worth €31 million.
Cultivation of the plant will protect its natural habitats, under threat from extensive collecting in recent years. The herbal product industry is increasingly under pressure to protect plant species with the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, agreed in 1992, aiming to set standards on sustainability.
But recent reports on biodiversity continue to point the finger at the herbals industry, which may not be doing enough to protect certain species.
The market for herbal remedies in North America and Europe has been expanding by about 10 per cent a year for the last decade and the world market is now thought to be worth at least £11 billion (€15.8bn). In some countries, up to 80 per cent of the population relies on this form of treatment.
But two-thirds of the 50,000 medicinal plants in use around the world are still harvested from the wild, and between 4000 and 10,000 of them may now be endangered, according to UK charity Plantlife International. In Europe, around 90 per cent of the 1300 medicinal plants used commercially are collected from the wild.
Martin Bauer says 70 per cent of its extracts come from cultivated plants, with only 30 per cent collected from wild-growing plants. Its camomile, peppermint, fennel fruit and thyme supplies come entirely from contract cultivation and it has also launched successful growing projects for ginseng in China, chilli fruit in Tanzania and verbena in Paraguay.
The German company is also directing a project to teach chieftains and collectors how to harvest the rhizome in a sustainable manner in order to preserve the populations. Controlled cultivation and the controlled collection of wild-growing rhizomes is expected to gradually replace the uncontrolled harvesting of wild plants practiced in many places up to now.
More information on Martin Bauer's project will be presented during the Conference on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, taking place from 7-9 September 2004 in Jena, Germany.